Hechinger passing lamented as bargains are sought


ON SUNDAY, the early birds flocked to Hechinger's to catch bargains. By 8: 30 a.m., when many folks are getting up on a Sunday, the big parking lot at the Snowden Square shopping center was half full of sedans, pickup trucks and minivans.

Not unusual for the "world's most unusual lumberyard" -- as the company's logo once read.

But now, all sales at the big-box hardware store are final, and the Hechinger Co. will be reduced to a notation in bankruptcy court records.

Company executives expect to close the chain by mid-December.

Hechinger has anchored a corner of the Snowden Square shopping center since 1994, providing everything from hasps to hot tubs for Columbia homeowners and contractors. The store will be missed in the neighborhood.

"It's too bad; it's a great location for the community here," said John Dalton of Guilford, who has shopped at Hechinger stores for 10 years.

On Sunday, Dalton bought some caulk and roofing materials and a 28-foot fiberglass ladder that he strapped to the roof of his Jeep. "It was a good store," he said, "but you could see it coming."

Regular customers point to lack of service as the reason for the chain's decline. Andy Clark, owner of Clark's Do-It Center in Ellicott City, said he suspects that the problems began with a leadership void when founder John Hechinger stepped down.

Fierce competition from stores like Home Depot, which was founded in 1978 and moved into Maryland in 1988, added to the troubles.

"We were just talking about this on the way here," said real estate developer Kent Johnson of Kendall Ridge.

He and Bob Jensen, a former neighbor visiting from Virginia, came to buy lawn supplies.

"If they aren't going to do it right, good riddance," Johnson said. "They lost my allegiance three or four years ago."

Johnson is remodeling his home. "I usually go here, then to Sewell's," he said, "and if they don't have it, I face the dilemma of going all the way to Home Depot."

The Home Depot in Catonsville is a 12-mile drive that takes about 20 minutes from Hechinger's.

Traditional hardware stores such as Sewell's Ace Hardware and Home Center -- at the Golden Triangle shopping center at U.S. 29 and U.S. 40 -- stand to recapture trade when Hechinger's closes.

Sewell's sidewalks are brimming with rows of lawn mowers, trash cans and prefabricated sheds. The display signals to the motorist on the exit to U.S. 40 east that a hardware store is here, although the entrance to the parking lot is not easy to see.

From Sewell's, heading west on U.S. 40, searchers will find 84 Lumber just past Bethany Lane and Clark's Do-It Center a little farther west.

A new Home Depot is expected to open next summer in a renovated Chatham Mall.

The smaller hardware retailers, such as Sewell's and Clark's, continue to survive because, their owners say, they offer something lacking in big-box stores -- personal attention.

"Lowe's and Home Depot are not as customer-friendly," said Andy Clark. Lowe's has a store in Westminster, but has not moved to Howard County.

The sixth-generation proprietor of Clark's Do-It Center said price is only one factor in keeping customer loyalty. But competitive pricing "keeps us on our toes," he added.

Clark wears the same uniform as his employees. He usually can be found walking around his store waiting on customers, answering phones or stocking shelves. Only the name on his badge distinguishes the genial storekeeper from members of his staff.

That, and his vast knowledge of the industry.

"A lot of it is just listening to your customers," Clark said, explaining how he has managed to fare well in an era of category killer stores.

The first Clark's hardware opened in 1845 on Route 108 in Clarksville. Andy Clark remembers that his father had a coal and oil business when homes were heated that way.

This year, Clark's Do-It Center laid in a supply of items to deal with the Y2K problem. Clark installed a 250-kilowatt generator to light up the store and power the cash registers.

If the doomsayers are correct in their prognostications, Clark's Do-It Center will supply the goods residents will need -- if the store is not sold out by then.

Still, for many, the closing of Hechinger's is like losing a friend.

"It's quite surprising to hear they are closing," said Kings Contrivance resident Richard Sleep in his native British accent. "It's a bit sad, really."

Sleep is general manager of a company in New Carrollton that handles transportation and storage for art and antiques. Hechinger's pulled him out of a hole, he says, when the remnants of Hurricane Floyd knocked out power to his warehouse.

Knowing that he had only one electrical outlet from an emergency power supply, Sleep went straight from his home to the Hechinger store for extension cords, battery chargers and surge suppressors to keep his busy office running. He slept in the building until security systems were back on line.

"Having everything right there five minutes up the road is great," he said. "They always have what I need."

He doesn't know what he will do when the store is gone.

Richard W. Story, executive director of the Howard County Economic Development Authority, is focused on the employees who will lose their jobs when the store closes.

"There is a severe shortage of qualified workers right now," Story said. "If there is such a thing as a good time to be laid off, this is it. Those people will be quickly assimilated into the work force."

Prospects for filling the soon-to-be-vacant site also are promising, Story said. "Retailers have found the county to be a lucrative place to do business," he said.

Elizabeth Fixsen of Savage would like to see Hechinger stay. "I'd rather have a bad store there than no store at all," she said.

Fixsen, who describes herself as a housewife, said people from her neighborhood will be left in the lurch when the big hardware store closes.

"It'll be a long drive to get furnace filters and a million little odds and ends," she said.

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